Lies and Consequences


The Post
Produced by Dreamworks 
Directed by Steven Spielberg 
Screenplay by Liz Hannah and Josh Singer 
Distributed by Twentieth Century Fox 

The Phantom Thread
Produced and distributed by Focus Features 
Written and directed by Paul Thomas Anderson 

The Post is Steven Spielberg’s account of the Washington Post’s 1971 decision to publish the Robert McNamara-ordered report United States-Vietnam Relations, 1945-1967: A Study Prepared by the Department of Defense.  More commonly known as the Pentagon Papers, this classified 7,000-page document was stolen by former Marine and military analyst Daniel Ellsberg and released to the press.  The film is absorbing, intelligent, and profoundly misleading.

Screenwriters Liz Hannah and Josh Singer have followed closely the account of events provided by the Post’s then-publisher, Katharine Graham, in her autobiography, Personal History, but they’ve done so selectively.  I give their script high marks for tracing America’s role in Vietnam back to 1945, when Franklin Roosevelt and (later) Harry Truman decided not to support the French in their struggle to maintain their colony in Indochina after World War II.  Once the French withdrew in 1954, what had been our hands-off policy became all too hands-on.  The domino theory had become the order of the day.  It was thought imperative that we prevent the communists in the north from taking over in the south.  Otherwise, Vietnam’s neighbors—Laos and Cambodia—would be lost also.  We had stood by while the Soviets had brought Eastern Europe into their orbit after the war.  It was decided we couldn’t risk something similar happening in Southeast Asia.

During the Eisenhower administration, we set up a government in the south under the rule of Ngo Dinh Diem, a reasonably cooperative Mandarin Catholic.  He was to do our bidding, and we would send “advisors” to Saigon to help his forces should they come under attack from the communist north.

The Post dutifully acknowledges this history and those complicit in America’s failed effort across three decades under presidents Truman, Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson, and Nixon.  Tellingly, however, it’s Nixon who comes in for the worst drubbing.  As the film proceeds, Spielberg gives us repeated glimpses of Nixon pacing back and forth in a darkened oval office, issuing heated directives over the phone to his staff.  In his mind, publishing the papers was treasonous, and the traitors, especially Ellsberg, had to be brought to heel.  Throughout the film Nixon is served up as the villain, thereby all but exonerating the presidents who went before him.  This is odd.  While relying on Graham’s book elsewhere, Hannah and Singer decided to leave out her comments on Nixon.  Apparently such comments didn’t fit their narrative.  Here are Graham’s thoughts regarding Nixon’s reaction to the publication of the papers.

In retrospect, it’s hard to understand why Nixon and his people were so upset by the publication of these Papers, which were essentially a history of decisions made before they were in power.  Nothing in them was a reflection on Nixon.

Graham puts it down to paranoia about “national security.”  She might have been right about that, but there’s another consideration.  Nixon was almost certainly concerned that the secret report would give propaganda ammunition to our enemies, the Soviet Union and China.  Another worry was how the report would affect our allies.  Wouldn’t they lose confidence in America’s judgment and grow wary of our leaders’ inability to keep confidences and honor agreements?  After all, the Papers made it clear that the heroic Kennedy had colluded with a group of disaffected South Vietnamese generals to assassinate Diem.

To be fair, other scenes do tell the truth, stingingly so.  In one, Graham confronts her personal friend McNamara.  How, she demands, could he have countenanced sending troops into a war he had already concluded couldn’t be won?  McNamara responds by putting up a smokescreen filled with the think-tank reasoning for which he was famous.  In another scene, Graham puts the screws to her executive editor, Ben Bradlee.  She chides him for having failed to question Kennedy with the same toughness he’s now applying to Nixon.  Did he allow Kennedy’s charm to neutralize his journalistic instincts?  Graham is certain that he did and thereby shares responsibility for the war’s continuance.

These are powerful moments.  I haven’t seen their like in any other film or in most published accounts of the era, so thoroughly has Kennedy’s assassination put Mr. Camelot and his pals beyond historical reproach.

The actors do very well.  As Graham, Streep warbles and fidgets to convey her initial lack of confidence upon taking over the Post after her husband, Phil Graham, committed suicide.  We’re supposed to believe she’s a woman out of her depth as she wanders in and out of rooms milling with crusty newsmen and no-nonsense lawyers.  This, of course, sets the stage for Graham’s big moment, the moment when she’ll take charge and put these chauvinists straight, announcing that she’s going to risk jail time and publish the Pentagon Papers despite the threat of a court-issued injunction.  As her intrepid executive editor, Ben Bradlee, Tom Hanks gives a growling performance befitting a cocksure bully who’s nevertheless ready to serve his boss when she needs his counseling.  But only at her request.  She may flutter nervously, but, by god, when the chips are down, she’s her own woman.

Phantom Thread, directed by Paul Thomas Anderson, takes up the feminist theme from another direction.  Its principal character is Reynolds Woodcock (Daniel Day-Lewis), a couturier to the rich, famous, and, occasionally, royal.  His name seems too precious by half and perhaps harbors a joke in doubtful taste, especially when it’s reinforced by his company’s name, The House of Woodcock, the headquarters of which is housed in a London townhouse of four floors climbed daily by a staff of 20 or so seamstresses, all obedient to Woodcock’s every exacting whim.

I can’t recall ever seeing a film with a couturier as the lead.  I suspect that’s because there aren’t any.  Does the profession inspire adulation?  Wonder?  Imitation?  Perhaps for a special few of whom I’ve met exactly none.  Reynolds is presented as an artist of the first rank whose imperious ways are justified by his unparalleled talent.  And yet the dresses we see him design for his august patrons—a collection of exceedingly spoiled women—are neither especially beautiful nor practically functional.  They’re each an exercise in style at the expense of life, their taffeta wound round feminine allure until it’s stillborn.  It’s difficult to believe normal men would be drawn to the women so embalmed.  And yet Anderson seems to think Woodcock’s creations would set male pulses pounding.  Unless, of course, he’s playing a joke on what passes for high fashion.  If so, he doesn’t tip his hand.  He’s directed Day-Lewis to play Woodcock as though he were the latest and bravest avatar of art for art’s sake.  Real life, Woodcock seems to declare with his every gesture, is for dullards.  As is his enigmatic wont, Anderson doesn’t give us quite enough to sort this out unless we’re to take the film’s opening scene as a guide.  Here we watch Day-Lewis in extreme close-up as he scrupulously shaves himself and then scissors away every recalcitrant hair from his nostrils and ears.  He’s a man determined to dismiss every last vestige of the organic from his rarefied artificial existence.  His morning ablutions completed, he goes to a breakfast that heartily displeases him.  His girlfriend-mistress-muse has ordered offensively gooey pastries—“sludgy,” he calls them.  Of course, she must go.  He fobs this duty onto his business manager, who happens to be his sister.  Family means a lot to him.  His departed mother appears to him regularly, and he sews her name into his creations.  She’s his phantom thread.  Why not?  She taught him his trade.

Still unsatisfied, he drives his miniature sports car to northern England and steps into a hotel restaurant to take his delayed breakfast.  This he orders in plentiful detail with exacting instructions as to its preparation, taking note all the while of the young waitress who’s smiling obediently at his side.  Quicker than you can say “Givenchy,” he’s installed her in The House of Woodcock as his new muse.

Perhaps the most remarkable thing about the film is Anderson’s casting of Vicky Krieps as Alma, Woodcock’s new muse and lover.  She’s not the beauty you would expect.  Instead, she’s plain and unformed, her face doughy, her bosom undersized, her hips too wide.  She needs finishing, and that’s precisely her attraction for Woodcock.  He’ll give her a Pygmalion makeover.  This has been a dynamic of many films: Sabrina and Born Yesterday are cheerful examples from the 1950’s, the decade in which Thread takes place.  Alfred Hitchcock gave the theme a sinister twist with Vertigo (1958).  He had Kim Novak play a pliant woman who allows herself to be shaped by two men so thoroughly that she becomes little more than an instrument of their designs, baleful in one case, romantically foolish in the other.  Of course, this theme has become all but verboten in our enlightened age since it’s considered an affront to the now self-determined fairer sex.  That is, unless the Pygmalion happens to be a hybrid human-fish.  This is the acceptable conceit at the heart of Guillermo Del Toro’s The Shape of Water, in which the influence of an Amazonian gill-man transforms a timid mute into a gloriously self-possessed woman capable of belting out popular show tunes.

After a while, an all too long while, Anderson tries our patience beyond reasonable limits with a sadomasochistic dance between Woodcock and Alma as they seesaw with each other for mastery in their relationship.  This is the dynamic that infests and corrupts many a would-be loving union, especially among the pampered who have too much time on their hands.  People are generally better off seeing to the physical nature of their attraction to one another rather than anguishing about the balance of its psychological torque and tension.  Love can and often is undone by overthinking matters.  Feelings become clammy, stultifying.  Lorenz Hart caught the problem perfectly in his song “I Wish I Were in Love Again,” in which we hear this line: “When love congeals it soon reveals the faint aroma of performing seals.”  It used to be the bonds of matrimony were strong enough to bring a couple through such malodorous lulls in their bliss, but with the dilution of marriage and the ramping up of infidelity, more and more people won’t abide the odor.  They’d rather give their honey the air.

As it happens, Alma has a solution, a terrifying one.  It includes mushrooms and children.  I’ll say no more.      


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